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The Elvira Arellano Endgame

David Howard

On rare occasions humble acts of moral courage awaken our souls and reverberate through history. They touch us quietly and intimately, shed light, and profoundly inspire spiritual renewal: Rosa Parks refuses to sit in the back of a Montgomery, Alabama bus; an anonymous protester stands up to a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square; Anne Frank writes a diary before her deportation and death in Auschwitz.

On August 19, 2007 the US Immigrant Rights movement had its own historic moment destined to inspire future generations of social justice activists. Elvira Arellano, a Chicago cleaning woman and working mom, was arrested outside a church in Los Angeles. The immigration police immediately deported her to Mexico.

Arellano, who worked maintenance at O'Hare International Airport until she was fired in a post-9/11 purge of undocumented workers, became an unlikely human rights hero last year when she sought sanctuary in a Chicago Methodist church. Her simple Christian purpose was to avoid deportation and separation from her son Saul, a US citizen. Saul was an infant when Elvira was mopping our floors and cleaning our airport toilets. Now he was a second-grader, and his mom was a fugitive, on the run from the dreaded migra.

Like millions of other economic refugees, Elvira and Saul have been subjected to the increasingly stringent enforcement policies of a government hard-pressed by its xenophobic fringe. While some immigration reform efforts in Congress hold out promise to immigrants, most have been blocked by hardliners intent on waging a crusade against immigrant families.

The consequences have been catastrophic:

  • The militarization of our southern border has caused a dramatic increase in mortality. Over 4,000 corpses have been found in the desert since 1996, with dehydration and heat stroke among the leading causes of death. 2007 is on track to be the deadliest year on record.
  • Mass workplace raids and deportations are becoming terrifyingly commonplace. In December 2006, 1,300 Swift & Co. meat-processing workers were arrested simultaneously in six states. It was the largest raid in immigration enforcement history.
  • Raids and round-ups are facilitated by a government program called Endgame. Creepily evocative of the Ultimate Solution, Endgame is the Bush Administration's plan to "remove all removable aliens" by the year 2012. Its bite has recently been strengthened by a compliant Congress.

The tightening of surveillance, enforcement and prosecution has created a climate of fear in immigrant communities not seen in this country since the 1954 civil rights debacle, Operation Wetback. Elvira Arellano's deportation is a wake-up call for America. It's time to say, ¡Basta ya! We've had enough exploitation, abuse and exclusion. It's time to say "Sí, se puede" - We can do it!" to working families' rights to healthcare, education, liberty and legalization.


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Immigrant working families deserve our gratitude and respect. Demonizing them as "illegals" only serves to inflame our worst ethnocentric impulses at the precise moment in history when we most need to emphasize our best qualities-generosity and inclusiveness.

Addressing the complexities of immigration issues requires a serious multi-national dialogue. Such dialogue cannot commence in earnest, however, without compassionately and effectively addressing the humanitarian crisis on our borders, in our barrios, and at our detention centers.

We have nothing to fear from legalizing several million working families like Elvira and Saul Arellano who are already productive members of our society. On the other hand, we have plenty to fear if we succumb to ethnocentrism and revert to the intolerance of Operation Wetback.

The Elvira Arellano snapshot of the immigrant worker's dilemma gives us a precious opportunity to reflect inwardly on who we are and what we want to become in the 21st century. Such introspection brings a humanitarian clarity to our political endeavors. It permits us to acknowledge the mothers, fathers and children who are the economic refugees among us. It permits us to love Elvira and Saul. That's the endgame.

David Howard is a teacher, author and member of the board of directors of Citizens for Peaceful Resolutions/CPR.

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